A Vermont prison inmate was placed in solitary confinement for drug withdrawal and died for want of adequate medical care, his family alleges in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.
David L. Bissonnette, 38, of Burlington, died on November 22, 2016 of bacterial endocarditis, a heart infection often associated with intravenous drug use, a few hours after an ambulance rushed him from Northwest State Correctional Facility in Swanton to a hospital.
Bissonnette had been arraigned on November 7, 2016, on charges that he failed to appear in court, violated conditions of release and stole a laptop. He could not afford to post $4,000 bail, the suit says, so he was sent to prison. During intake, he revealed to staff that he had been taking buprenorphine, an opioid-addiction medication.
"[O]fficials who assigned Bissonnette to segregation expected Bissonnette to be going through withdrawal (as they would not let him continue to use buprenorphine)," the suit contends.
It continues: "It thus appears that officials from NWSCF addressed the problem they created by stopping buprenorphine by imposing administrative segregation in contravention of their own policies, so they would not be forced to actively supervise someone going through the torment of sudden opioid withdrawal."
Bissonnette repeatedly complained about aching in his chest, shortness of breath and dizziness during the 16 days between his admission to the prison and his death, the suit says.
"I can't breathe," he yelled from his cell on November 16, according to the suit. A medical staffer concluded he was having an anxiety attack, and gave him a book of word search puzzles to distract him.
The suit contends that the DOC and its health care contractor, Centurion of Vermont, were negligent in failing to provide adequate care that could have cured the heart infection.
Brattleboro lawyer James Valente filed the civil suit in Vermont Superior Court in Chittenden County on behalf of Bissonnette's 12-year-old daughter and the girl's mother, Christine Sabens. Valente said Bissonnette's death could have been prevented.
He should not have been placed in solitary confinement, which is typically used for disciplinary reasons, Valente said. His medical complaints were essentially dismissed even after health workers detected that he had a heart murmur, according to Valente.
"It appears that every medical symptom that he had, no matter how serious it was on its face, they simply assumed was related to his withdrawal," Valente said.
His life should not have ended the way it did, the lawyer asserted. “He had a kid," he said. "He had a lot of life in front of him."
The suit names numerous corrections employees, including Greg Hale, superintendent of the Northwest State Correctional Facility, and several Centurion employees.
Corrections Commissioner Mike Touchette declined to discuss the lawsuit Wednesday. "Because it's pending litigation it's not something I will be able to comment on,” Touchette said.
Bissonnette was denied buprenorphine because he did not have a prescription, his lawyer said.
In November 2017, Seven Days reported in a cover story that the DOC routinely denied inmates treatment. Still, even then, inmates with prescriptions did typically get up to 90 days of treatment.
Meanwhile, the DOC has since expanded access to treatment. Last year, the legislature passed a law to make buprenorphine available to inmates for as long as they need it. About 640 inmates are currently being medicated for opiate addiction, Touchette said.
The department plans to assess how the program is working, he added.
"We will be issuing [a request for proposals] this coming year that seeks an independent body to do an evaluation of the effectiveness and quality of the department's [medically assisted treatment] program," he said. "We are looking forward to having that report and getting a better understanding of how well we're doing."
The lawsuit, meanwhile, seeks unspecified monetary damages.
Bissonnette's death is not the first to spotlight endocarditis and the opioid epidemic. Seven Days reported in December 2017 that the illness, once rare, was becoming increasingly common because of intravenous drug use.